Well, this sure is different. In past years, I’ve sat down to write and discuss offseason strategy, and it was always pretty easy. The Minnesota Timberwolves have always just needed to select whoever was (literally) the number one player on their draft board. That was basically the only thing that really mattered, because the team was so bad and in dire need of an infusion of talent.
Coming off of a 46-win season and a playoff appearance, with a young, legitimate star in the making in Anthony Edwards paired with their All-NBA Big, things are different. The Wolves have a good core in place. They no longer need to find their core, they have Ant, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jaden McDaniels. I would include Jarred Vanderbilt in that as well in large part because of how significantly he outperforms the dollar value of his contract, and D’Angelo Russell could be considered part of this group depending on who you’re talking to.
Whether you include Russell or not, that core is nice, and for the moment, pretty cheap.
Now, the task is adding to that, but also understanding where the team is in the landscape of the Western Conference. The Wolves, as fun, young, and good as they are, are still probably two legitimate pieces away from contention. You could and probably will see some of that improvement come via the growth of young players like Ant (20 years old), McDaniels (21), and Jarred Vanderbilt (23), but trying to sit down and calculate how much those guys will improve is a fool’s errand. The Wolves can count on some improvement from that group, but growth isn’t linear. Banking on Edwards to be a fringe All-NBA candidate next season, for example, would just be bad process even if I would agree that it’s a possibility (I do).
With limited-to-no room to spend in free agency this offseason, the Wolves can mainly add talent via trade or through the draft.
More than anything, I want to stress just how important it is for the Timberwolves to continue to operate with a “Best Player Available” approach in the draft. As specific team needs become more clear/obvious, it can be tempting to look for the best “fit” in the draft in lieu of just taking the best player.
The Wolves, theoretically, could become fixated on a defensive-minded 4, or a backup big, etc. If the best player on the board at that pick fills a need, that’s great! If players have the same grade from your scouting department, sure, obviously take the player whom you believe would thrive more in your system. But what I just cannot get behind at all is looking to fill a short-term need through the draft, especially at pick 19.
For the most part, rookies are just bad. It shouldn’t be a surprise that kids who have barely turned 20 would struggle against grown men, but it’s important to remember as people begin to slot theoretical rookies into the 2022 rotation. Even if the Wolves nail that pick, the expectation should still be that whoever they take at 19 (or in the second round) will need at least a year to be able to contribute positively for a team with playoff aspirations.
Do any of us really want to pretend to know who is going to be on this roster in a year and a half or more? I don’t! Especially with a new POBO and the rate with which rosters turn over in today’s day and age. The Wolves should just take the player they think will have the best career, period. If there’s a “fit” issue down the line with an otherwise good player, it’s easy enough for teams to pivot and make that work. It shouldn’t play a factor in the draft process at all. If E.J. Liddell, for example, is the best player on the board at 19, that’s a home-run to me. But the Wolves shouldn’t force it just for the sake of short-term positional need.
The idea to take the best player is kind of an obvious point, but once you have specific needs to fill instead of needing to overhaul the entire roster, it’s only natural to subconsciously box yourself into specific types of players. Nobody knows what this roster will look like when pick #19 is ready to contribute. Take the best player and figure it out later, unless you’re going for a player from the University of Kentucky, in which case John Meyer’s PKP Model takes precedence.
With that in mind, the Wolves should be looking to add for next season pretty exclusively through the trade market. I understand that they likely will not want to take on a ton of future money (nobody does), but still, they should be active in the trade market to address their deficiencies. There’s especially good reason for the Wolves to not take on long-term money now, though, as the summer of 2023 figures to be their sweet spot to add talent, as Dane Moore recently explained.
Because KAT made All NBA, he is now eligible to sign a 4-year, $211M supermax — starting in 2024.— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) May 25, 2022
In 2024, Anthony Edwards can also start a 5-year, $195M max. Jaden McDaniels is also up for a new contract in 2024.
A little clip, explaining why 2023 is the Wolves time to add. pic.twitter.com/jwlDziDje0
Whether it be through a D’Angelo Russell trade, attaching one pick to Malik Beasley to see what that could bring back, or something more creative, the Wolves avenue to improvement in 2022-23, at least process-wise internally, needs to be via trade.
Could the Wolves draft a gem at 19 who helps them immediately? Sure! That would be an awesome bonus, which is how they should view that type of boost. It’s a bonus, and not something that should be expected.
Ultimately, that’s all I ask of this offseason. Don’t take things for granted or be unrealistic about the degree of improvement that will come from internal growth. Make the absolute most of the assets you do have (plenty, for once), and let a big leap from Ant, or Jaden be a bonus that boosts you up a tier. Let your rookie being good enough to play right away be a bonus, not something that should be counted on.
The Wolves front office is smart, so they obviously know this, but still, I think it’s important to remember and go over each year. Roster construction is so fluid, and the Wolves have as much flexibility as anyone. They showed they can be a good team, but they’re not yet good enough that they can consider drafting for fit over talent. They need to work the trade market and use what little maneuverability they have to sign free agents in order to improve next year, ideally without compromising future assets in the process. It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s how the great teams and organizations separate themselves from the pack.